In high school my father convinced his mom to pay for private French lessons, what I imagine to be an unusual request of an only child to his widowed mother in Pittsburgh PA. After graduating college in1938 my father took these language skills to travel in Europe, an activity I imagine myself doing. Instead I traveled around the Caribbean and South America after high school. My mom gave me eighty dollars and a backpack for my graduation present. After attending four high schools in four years Mom knew I had no interest in heading to college from high school like both she and my father had.
It was WWII that brought my father back to the U.S. and then enabled his return to Europe. As part of the mandatory draft, James M Eichelberger, Eich as my father was known by friends, enlisted in the U.S. Army as a private. He recorded his occupation as a writer, editor and reporter, skills he would put to use deceiving our enemy. Eich became an expert in what was then called black and grey propaganda. Black propaganda was totally made up stories, what would be called “fake” news today, whereas grey propaganda had elements of truth to it.
I know very little about his service to war besides the few references he made in the letters he wrote me between 1982 and 1989. I have these twelve typed letters in plastic sleeves ordered by date in a three ring binder now. Upon the occasion of reflecting on what Veterans Day means to me I have opened the notebook to the following that he typed to me on December 15th,1987.
I know my mother kept all my letters from World War II and they could be a gold mine. My mother copied them and sent some around to friends, here, there and elsewhere. Art John found about ten of them in an old trunk of his and I am impressed with my powers of observation and expression then. Alice has them and there must be a couple hundred pages of what is now history.”
Art John was a friend of my father’s who was to have the autobiography my father had been promising me a copy of for years. Alice is my mother and the wife he unexpectedly abandoned when I was six years old. My dad’s mom, my grandmother, died suddenly, just a few months before my parents married but Eich makes little mention of what happened to all the letters he had written to her during the war except to say my mom had them. None of the war time correspondence from my father surfaced after either of my parents’ deaths.
Veterans Day is another jab to my heart. Eich certainly understood the importance of the history he was a part of. But I ignored the opportunity to ask him directly about the stories haunting his head and those he had committed to the page. Earlier in the same letter his wrote;
I do not make carbons because this new machine isn’t good at it; but I sometimes have things Xeroxed in a shop around the corner. I am writing on a Canon S-58 and am thinking of getting a Canon photo copier. Both are Japanese electronic wiz gadgets and I think I need them. I should make copies of what I write.
Yes, I think now, you should have made copies and left them in manila envelopes with my name on them. A few months later, on February 20 1988 in another letter to me my father wrote:
I have been working pretty hard, particularly on the autobio, which is in the form of a journal: daily entries of current interest and a daily raid of my recollection of people, places and events. It’s astounding what the mind can dredge up; I am almost at page 300 and I am far from finishing WWII. I was only a little fish of a captain but I swam just under the waves made by the big names of the epoch. I was in England, North Africa, France and Germany and saw everything but the surrender. Where was I then? Probably in bed with the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury. I drank vodka with Russians. Does anybody in your generation ever think of the retreat from Dunkirk and what it meant? It’s right for flower children to deplore war but it’s not so bad if you’re lucky.
I do deplore war. In fact I was arrested on the Capitol steps in Washington, DC protesting the Vietnam War as part of the 1971 May Day demonstrations. But I am glad that my dad feels he was lucky.
Besides the letters through which Eich referenced his war time, as well as stories that his friend and partner Miles Copeland immortalized in his own autobiography The Game Player confessions of the CIA’s original political operative (published in January 1989 just 10 months before Eich’s death), I have two documents related to my dad’s military service. The Registrar’s Report is a WWII relic I found on Ancestory.com. It describes his physical characteristics, such as his six foot height, brown hair and blue eyes, but says nothing of his wicked intelligence or wry sense of humor.
The other document is a three page dispatch from the War Department’s Strategic Services Unit dated February 13, 1946 and transmitted in code or cipher. My father was to receive a French Reconnaissance Medal and Decrete #5 but his name was initially spelled incorrectly. I have no idea what he did to receive such distinction nor if he ever actually received the medal. Also called the Medal of French Gratitude, the honor was first awarded in WWI by the French government to citizens who had risked their lives to support the war effort.
As part of the Office of Strategic Services, the storied OSS, I like to imagine my father supporting the Resistance in occupied France by posing as a French man cooperating with the Germans. I am certain he spoke German as well as French. Although both of my father’s parents were born in PA, they were of German ancestry. Moreover, after the war when my dad was pursuing a Doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Chicago, his academic records indicate he passed his French and German examinations at a high level.
Eich would have been planted behind enemy lines in Paris, a place he loved, a place he was comfortable in; if one can ever be comfortable in a war. Perhaps my father had a hand in leading propaganda efforts in Paris. I keep front and center that he got his start in the dark arts of deceit with black and grey propaganda.
In one of his books Miles Copeland mentions a French poetess my father took up with at the end of the war. Who is not to say they fell in love while developing newspaper articles and radio broadcasts to lead our enemies astray. Maybe he helped save the lives of her family in the waning days of war and for this he was to receive the French Reconnaissance Medal. When Eich left my mother in Beirut when I was six and my brother was only six months old, he went off to Paris to resume a romantic relationship with a French poetess he had met during the last day of the war.” ( Copeland, The Game Player, pg 218.)
Aside from the letter quotes I have already shared, there is one more letter dated October 17, 1988, less than a year before he died, in which my father references his own war time service and more broadly his work for the CIA.
My old, old friend Art John from Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago and Harvard has been keeping a Xerox of my MS. It’s always prudent to keep any material of historical interest in duplicate but in this case I didn’t think it was worth a bank vault. If you care to store a lot of hot stuff— when they’re older the kids might like to read about their grandfather’s odd and extensive participation in the 20th century– you are the one who should have it. Art is an historian and he thinks I should offer some of it for publication, particularly the section on the second world war. I haven’t got to the CIA and the Middle East yet and Art and I are of two minds about publishing this kind of revelation. Eisenhower would be involved as would U.S. relations with Great Britain, France, Egypt, Iran and a lot of other places. I’ll think about it. I do have a long way to go and am up to 500 pages now.
I did not receive the manuscript my father had been working on the last years of his life. Nor did I try to track down Art John when there might have been an opportunity to find him. My dad died before the internet was born. Moreover, while my dad was aging in Washington DC, I lived over a thousand miles away in Key West, Florida with my husband and soon to be three children. Our last child,Taylor, was born exactly nine months after my Dad’s death.
It is terrible to regret missed opportunities but I do nonetheless.
I am also a believer in miracles. Perhaps in someone’s attic sits my father’s manuscript and it will find its way home to me. Perhaps someone reading this post will have more internet sleuthing prowess than me and will reach out to help.
Meanwhile this Veteran’s Day, although my father has lost his voice, I am gaining mine.
Here’s to the veterans of war, whether the fight be in our heads or out in the world. We all deserve to recognize the struggle from which compassion is born.
~ Anne E Tazewell
The lotus is the most beautiful flower, whose petals open one by one. But it will only grow in the mud. In order to grow and gain wisdom, first you must have the mud — the obstacles of life and its suffering. … The mud speaks of the common ground that humans share, no matter what our stations in life. … Whether we have it all or we have nothing, we are all faced with the same obstacles: sadness, loss, illness, dying and death. If we are to strive as human beings to gain more wisdom, more kindness and more compassion, we must have the intention to grow as a lotus and open each petal one by one.― Goldie Hawn